PREVIEW: Anyone who has driven on State Highway 1 through Putaruru might recall a mural that was painted on the side of the Waikato town's rugby club. In it, a player carrying the ball was fending off a tackler. The only problem was that the artist - using the loosest definition of the term - had no firm grasp of scale, and the subsequently, it looked like a full-grown man was slapping down a boy.
The mural is gone now, which is a shame, because for many years it no doubt stood tall as a cautionary tale to surrounding towns about appointing any old bloke with a paintbrush a spare weekend to the office of public artworks.
Anyway, if there's a point to all this, it's that Putaruru's infamous mural might have better depicted what happened in Danger Close's Medal of Honor: Warfighter multiplayer hands-on at Gamescom last week.
Not all input systems are created equal. Behind closed doors, the developer inadvertently conducted a scale experiment testing one of gaming's great hypothetical questions: can players using a controller compete against players using a mouse and keyboard? Or, to try and bring this tenuous metaphor home, who is the runner, who is the child-like tackler?
The result should be unsurprising to anyone who has played both console and PC first-person shooters extensively. Members of the press were able to choose their preferred method of input at each station, and those using controllers could soon be identified by their increasingly frustrated outbursts as they were breezily slapped down time and again.
That's no reflection on the game, obviously, even if it did skew the multiplayer hands-on session. At release, there will be few who are masochistic enough to bring a controller to a PC gunfight. In fact, Warfighter can be commended for trying something different what has become a direly predictable sub-genre: the modern-military first-person shooter.
"EA did this wonderful thing years ago with Muhammad Ali Boxing," begins Warfighter executive producer Greg Goodrich. "What they did was tackle that question: who is the best boxer ever? Is it Mike Tyson, is it Muhammad Ali, is it Joe Louis, is it Sugar Ray Leonard?"
"You could never answer that question because they were from different eras and different weight classes. They allowed these boxers to get in the ring and slug it out, and determine it. So that's what we've done with this game."
In Medal of Honor: Warfighter's multiplayer, gamers will control representations of the world's special forces, from US Navy SEALs and Polish GROM, to British SAS and Australian SAS-R. These small elite forces will skirmish with one another in modes that mirror international war games.
Rather than terrorists versus soldiers, superpower versus superpower, "it's good guys versus good guys, heroes versus heroes," says Goodrich.
"Focusing on that national pride, on brotherhood and respect - you hear a lot about that, and certainly it's one of the core tenets of Medal of Honor. But in these communities, these special operations communities of warriors, there is a healthy, hearty sense of competition. They're all alpha males. You get into a game of tiddly-winks with these guys and it's going to get violent if they lose!"
"So we wanted to bring that sense of competition to the game, and answer that age-old question: who is the best special operations small fighting unit in the world?"
The response to the announcement of Medal of Honor's nationalistic multiplayer at E3 in June was overwhelmingly positive, says Goodrich. To capitalise on that further, Danger Close has added a metagame that sits above the core multiplayer. Now, gamers from any UN nation - including New Zealand - will be accumulating scores for their own country.
"It was really funny how that came about," Goodrich tells Gameplanet. "When we announced that for the first time in our franchise history that we were going global, and we were opening it up and allowing gamers to feel that national pride, there were 10 nations that said, 'Cool, that's awesome!' And then everyone else said, 'Hey, what about us!?'"
"You can't put everybody in the game, but it spawned the idea of this metagame that would allow for the player on the battlefield to also share that sense of national pride."
So if I'm from Brazil, or Jordan, or any number of the United Nations out there, I can earn those tokens, and then go back to Battlelog and spend them, and say, 'Yeah, look at us, man, we're kicking ass.'"
Home Run, the mode demonstrated to the press, pits two teams of six against one another on a tight map with little verticality. One team is tasked with defending a flag positioned in the middle of the map, the other with retrieving it and returning it to its starting location.
Each round lasts two minutes. Health regenerates so slowly as to be negligible, and players don't respawn after they're eliminated in any round. A perfunctory voice-over keeps track of deaths, and the overall score. After three rounds, the teams swap sides and objectives, and to drive home the war games representation, the game displays the two teams passing one another on the map, exchanging cursory nods.
Goodrich readily acknowledges the influence of Counter-Strike on the mode: "What we wanted to do was very constrained areas so that you're never looking for the fight, you're always in the fight. You're constantly engaging the enemy. Then you go down and you don't have to wait a long time to find that last guy because the instances are very contained. So we looked at a lot of the old maps that did that very well, like Dust, and kept that sense of close quarters battle."
Warfighter does appear to be making some concessions to modern shooters. Health may not regenerate in a meaningful way in this mode, but it does take too many bullets to dispatch an adversary. Padded demolitions experts toting a combat shotgun absorb enough damage that they can be caught unawares and still have time to lumber around and put their assailant down if they're close enough. Even so, the mode delivers its own kind of curiously detached intensity: every bullet is precious, and team coordination is absolutely critical.
To play up the cooperative aspect, players are placed in two-operative fireteams. Players can see a silhouette of their partner whenever they're in front, and a silhouette of anyone who attacks and kills their partner. In other modes, players will be able to respawn on the partner, and working together will result in quicker respawns and ammo replenishment.
"Talking to the guys, the operatives we work with, they say you do get a sixth sense in a combat zone where you always know where your battle buddy is, and so that was our way of visually representing that on the screen with the fireteam mechanics," continues Goodrich.
Medal of Honor 2010 was received somewhat warmly, but the tang of disappointment was evident most places, and in such a competitive subgenre, "pretty good" just isn't good enough.
"On that game it was two teams, two technologies, and almost two creative visions," concedes Goodrich. With Warfighter, Danger Close appears to have something more compelling.
"We know that we have a lot to prove in multiplayer," concludes Goodrich. "We want to carve out our spot, find out our place, and deliver a multiplayer experience that is uniquely Medal of Honor - and also something that you can't find anywhere else in the genre, hopefully."
Medal of Honor: Warfighter is coming to PC ($98), Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 ($118) on the 25th of October.
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